Horse Therapy Helps Veterans Overcome Trauma

Columbia study shows equine therapy significantly reduced PTSD and depressive symptoms three months post-treatment

New research shows equine therapy—a treatment method that uses the connection between people and horses to enhance emotional healing—can jump-start the healing process for veterans who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

The research, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, was conducted by Drs. Yuval Neria and Prudence Fisher, principal investigators of the Man O' War Project at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. The project is the first university-led study to evaluate equine-assisted therapy in treating veterans with PTSD and develop a manual for the protocol to guide others in the field. 

“Both PTSD patients and horses are preoccupied with ongoing concerns about trust and safety. This innovative therapy facilitates bonding, overcoming fear, and re-establishing confidence,” said Dr. Neria, professor of medical psychology (in psychiatry and epidemiology) and director of Columbia’s PTSD program. “One must build trust with a horse for it to warm to you.”  

Many find standard treatments ineffective

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 10 to 30 percent of veterans experience PTSD, a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as combat, a terrorist act, or sexual assault. 

Symptoms are wide-ranging and can affect people in many ways, including re-experiencing the traumatic event (through nightmares and flashbacks) and avoiding situations that remind them of their traumatic experiences. An average of 17 veterans end their lives every day, and many who suffer from PTSD are not finding standard treatments effective.

Marked reduction in PTSD and depression

To conduct their study, the researchers enrolled 63 veterans with PTSD. The participants were divided into small groups, meeting weekly for eight 90-minute sessions, co-led by a mental health professional and an equine specialist who guided them in horse communication and behavior. More than 50 percent of the participants showed a marked reduction in PTSD and depression at post treatment and at the three-month follow-up. 

Dr. Fisher said she is encouraged by these results and hopes that equine therapy can help more people gain control of their lives so that PTSD doesn’t cause relationship and career problems, which can be a result  of the condition. 

“Through horse-human interaction, veterans can relearn how to recognize their feelings, regulate emotions, and better communicate, as well as build trust and come to trust themselves again—all valuable tools to help them succeed with family, work, and social relationships,” Dr. Fisher said.

“We are only beginning to understand the negative effects that war has on our veterans and how to address them effectively,” Dr. Neria said. “We have a responsibility to explore all possible avenues of treatment for PTSD.”


Equine Therapy, veterans